Dan­ger in books, and in peo­ple who read

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks dro­dricks@balt­sun.com

The 21st an­nual Bal­ti­more Book Fes­ti­val opens on Fri­day, with hun­dreds of au­thors, ex­hibitors, chefs and book­sell­ers, as well as a “thought­fully cu­rated food, craft beer and wine pro­gram” along the In­ner Har­bor prom­e­nade. Among Satur­day’s fea­tured writ­ers: Mikita Brottman, Ox­ford-ed­u­cated scholar, pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture at the Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art, and au­thor of “The Max­i­mum­Se­cu­rity Book Club,” a mem­oir of her time as a vol­un­teer lead­ing dis­cus­sions of Shake­speare and Melville among a few in­mates at the Jes­sup Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion.

It’s grand that Brottman gets to ap­pear at noon on the In­ner Har­bor stage for a read­ing be­fore an au­di­ence of book lovers. But the pub­lic recog­ni­tion in her adopted city is bit­ter­sweet: Mary­land prison of­fi­cials last month un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously scrapped Brottman’s book club, halt­ing, for du­bi­ous rea­sons, her ef­fort to in­tro­duce men serv­ing long prison sen­tences — in some cases, life sen­tences — to great lit­er­a­ture.

Then, two weeks ago, the top man at Clifton T. Perkins Hos­pi­tal, the state’s max­i­mum­se­cu­rity psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity, also in Jes­sup, scrubbed the read­ing group Brottman had led there since 2012, cit­ing pas­sages in “The Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Book Club” that he felt raised con­cerns for his in­sti­tu­tion.

The de­ci­sion to can­cel Brottman’s “Fo­cus On Fic­tion” class at Perkins, where she and be­tween 10 and 20 pa­tients at a time had dis­cussed works of Ray­mond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and other writ­ers, came less than two weeks after I re­ported on the scrap­ping of her class at JCI.

In both cases, at Perkins and JCI, Brottman was ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing rules for those who come into con­tact with in­mates while vol­un­teer­ing for var­i­ous pro­grams in Mary­land pris­ons. In both cases, Brottman re­ceived ter­mi­na­tion let­ters that were terse and cryptic. And in both cases, she says, she was ac­corded no op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss her al­leged rules vi­o­la­tions with state of­fi­cials.

When I first in­quired about the de­ci­sion to drop her book club, I was told that there was no longer a need for it. A new col­lege pro­gram was be­ing in­tro­duced to JCI in­mates, sup­plant­ing the book club, and so Brottman was told thanks and farewell.

But that was not the rea­son at all. The real rea­son, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the prison sys­tem later told me, was a rules vi­o­la­tion, re­sult­ing in JCI’s new war­den hav­ing “con­cerns over the re­la­tion­ships that [Brottman] has de­vel­oped with of­fend­ers, as ev­i­denced in her publi­ca­tions.”

Brottman’s ap­par­ent in­frac­tion oc­curred when she had con­tact with two in­mates, mem­bers of her book club, after they were re­leased from JCI. “One guy went to court to get a sen­tence re­duc­tion and I tes­ti­fied that he had been at­tend­ing the book club, read­ing, do­ing his home­work, was po­lite and well­be­haved,” Brottman says. “An­other guy was re­leased after 30 years and, yes, I have kept in touch with him — talk on the phone, try to give him moral sup­port. He needs it.”

Ap­par­ently that made Mikita Brottman some kind of a safety or se­cu­rity threat, not only at JCI, but at Perkins. John Ro­bi­son, the CEO at Perkins, gave his rea­sons for scrap­ping Brottman’s “Fo­cus on Fic­tion” group in a fol­low-up email to the pro­fes­sor 10 days ago. With one ex­cep­tion, every in­frac­tion he cited came from his read­ing of Brottman’s book:

Putting her re­turn ad­dress on a let­ter to a Perkins pa­tient who had asked for in­for­ma­tion about mail-or­der col­lege classes. (Brottman ac­knowl­edges the mis­take, but notes that her con­tact in­for­ma­tion is avail­able on her web­site.)

Wear­ing red ap­parel dur­ing a visit to JCI. (“I was turned away but I al­ways fol­lowed the dress code,” Brottman says. “As I ex­plain in the book, the guards would make up spe­cious rea­sons to turn me away.”)

Ask­ing a JCI book club mem­ber to re­move cloth­ing to ex­pose a tat­too. (“I ad­mit in the book it was bad judg­ment,” Brottman says.)

Her ad­mis­sion in the book that she has “al­ways strug­gled with per­sonal and pro­fes­sional bound­aries.”

The lat­ter goes to the heart of the con­flict be­tween Brottman and state of­fi­cials. What a col­lege pro­fes­sor sees as an op­por­tu­nity for re­veal­ing, even in­ti­mate, dis­cus­sions of lit­er­a­ture — “Read­ing can bring up sub­jects that make peo­ple very un­com­fort­able,” Brottman says — a war­den sees as a threat to prison se­cu­rity. What Brottman sees as the hu­man con­di­tion — her life and work in­ter­wo­ven — a war­den sees as a bound­ary vi­o­la­tion.

The ap­par­ent clincher for Ro­bi­son was this pas­sage from Brottman’s book about her time with the JCI book club mem­bers: “To­ward them, at var­i­ous times, I felt com­pas­sion, sym­pa­thy, con­cern, ex­as­per­a­tion and, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, now, look­ing back, I think I may have been a lit­tle in love.”

Such can­dor will not be tol­er­ated. As Brottman says: “Who knew book clubs could be so dan­ger­ous?”

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